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Competitive Baldwin drawing comparisons to Westbrook

The athletic and aggressive point guard realizes he'll need to be vocal leader in order to succeed in the NBA

POSTED: Jun 10, 2016 2:05 PM ET

By Chris Dortch

BY Chris Dortch

NBA.com

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In his sophomore season at Vanderbilt, Wade Baldwin averaged 14.1 points, 5.2 assists and 4.0 rebounds.

When Wade Baldwin first showed up at Vanderbilt as a freshman in 2014, he was a little like a wild stallion, and former Commodore coach Kevin Stallings was a little like a cowboy trying to break him ... but not too much. Baldwin, the son of DEA and FBI agents, came equipped with a level of aggression and competitiveness that Stallings didn't want to go away, but Baldwin also had his own way of doing things that didn't particularly mesh with his coach's system.

At one point, Stallings opined privately that Baldwin, a 6-foot-4 point guard, was the least impressive of a heralded group of freshmen that also included a four-star point guard, Shelton Mitchell, who began the 2014-15 season as Vanderbilt's starter. But then Mitchell suffered a concussion and was sidelined for six games, Baldwin replaced him, and a potential NBA lottery pick was unleashed.

Baldwin never handed that starting job back to Mitchell; he was just too good. Only two freshman guards in Division I averaged at least nine points, four assists and four rebounds a game. One of them was Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell, who wound up being the second player chosen in the 2015 NBA Draft. The other was Baldwin.

After the season, Mitchell transferred to Clemson.

"There were things in Wade's game that needed to be modified and adjusted, and he needed to buy into our way of doing things," Stallings said before the 2015-16 season began. "And he did, he really did. As a result, his progress from the beginning of the season to the end was really amazing.

But I'm like a sponge. I'll absorb what I'm taught. And then I'll take it to the floor and compete. That's what I do.

– Wade Baldwin

"He can do so many things: He handles it well, passes it, can defend, shoots it well. He's a good rebounding guard and he's a good finisher. He plays multiple positions. He brings a lot to the table."

Then Stallings offered a prediction that proved to be more accurate than he could have imagined.

"Wade's a guy that will continue to get better and better," Stallings said.

Prospect Profile: Wade Baldwin

Get to know NBA Draft prospect Wade Baldwin.

And so Baldwin did. Early in his sophomore season, NBA scouts, who had been making regular appearances to Nashville for the previous couple of years to check on the progress of 7-foot center Damian Jones, wound up getting an eyeful of Baldwin. With his intelligence, speed, condor wingspan, battering-ram mentality to attack the rim, a deadly accurate 3-point stroke and improved playmaking ability, Baldwin began causing a stir. It wasn't long before one prominent Draft analyst proclaimed Baldwin a certain lottery pick should he choose to give up his final two seasons of eligibility.

And even though the Commodores struggled mightily at times -- confounding preseason prognosticators that heralded them as a Top 25 team or a group that could make a deep NCAA tournament run -- by season's end, Baldwin was drawing the highest of praise.

Last March, before a First Four game in the NCAAs, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall made a comparison that grabbed some attention.

"One of my assistant coaches said he seems to follow Russell Westbrook's game," Marshall said. "You see guys follow or emulate certain NBA players. And he's got some of that. And so obviously he's ultra-talented, long, can get to the rim, can shoot it deep, has a nice stroke."

Marshall became a believer while watching film in preparation for the NCAA game.

"I saw him jump up and try to dunk a back cut," Marshall said. "I went, 'man, I can't believe he tried to dunk that.' It wasn't an easy dunk attempt. And he just reached back and tried to backhand dunk it."

Regular observers of Vanderbilt games had grown used to Baldwin trying to pull moves like the one Marshall described. He'd come by his aggressive nature honestly, thanks to parents whose professions involved enforcing the law.

"I was raised differently," Baldwin recalls with a laugh. "A lot of the stuff I got punished for involved athletic activity. Whenever I got mad, or upset, or did immature stuff, my punishment was having my athletic activity taken away."

In Baldwin's formative years, there were a lot of options for his parents to take away. In middle school, he was a receiver and quarterback who could throw a football 75 yards. At 12 or 13 years old, Baldwin, who also played baseball, was a pitcher with a fastball that approached 90 mph. Football and baseball were sports in which he naturally excelled.

Basketball was another story.

"Basketball was like this super skilled sport," Baldwin said. "You had to put in so much time. Back in the day, I was just a shooter. But eventually I learned a more complete game."

Baldwin was better suited to basketball than he realized, but it's easy to see why he might have gotten sidetracked into thinking football, or chasing batters off the plate with chin-music fastballs, were better outlets for his style.

Baldwin's competitive spirit became legend the summer before his junior season of high school. Because of his 3.9 gpa -- his mother's connections didn't hurt, either -- he was allowed to enter an FBI leadership program, where he learned a lot about life in general, and more specifically, just how tough and competitive he was.

"It was a little different," Baldwin said. "There were people from all over the country there; guys from like Idaho, or the deep woods of Virginia who drove tractors to school. I'm basically an inner city, Northeastern kid. Completely different. I think there was one other black kid.

"It was a crazy culture change. A lot of the people there weren't athletes, or if they played sports, they did it because their parents just wanted them to be active. When I first got there, I was thinking, 'what am I going to talk to these people about?' It was eye opening."

Thus began Baldwin's ascension to the NBA. The program helped him learn to communicate with people from different walks of life, different parts of the country, just as he later would at Vanderbilt. The physicality of the program was beyond anything Baldwin had experienced, and it gave him a confidence boost that playing AAU basketball during the summer could never have provided.

One of the challenges Baldwin faced was a five-mile obstacle course.

Draft Combine: Wade Baldwin

Vanderbilt's Wade Baldwin speaks at the NBA Draft Combine.

"One of the trainees bet me that I couldn't beat the people who monitor the program," Baldwin said. "These were actual FBI agents. I didn't even know the [obstacle] course, but I was beating those guys out."

Word of that accomplishment filtered back to Vanderbilt, and Stallings, a competitive, ornery character himself, knew he had to have Baldwin.

Coach and player would clash occasionally as Stallings and his staff tried to channel Baldwin's ability during his freshman season. And once Baldwin was properly focused, he was a driving force for the Commodores, who had rebounded from a poor start to earn a spot in the NIT, where evidence of Baldwin's progress came with a near triple-double (20 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists) against South Dakota State. Little wonder that so much was expected of Baldwin, and Vanderbilt, in the 2015-16 season.

For various reasons, though, the Commodores fell short of expectations. They won just 19 games and barely squeezed into the NCAA tournament, where they were made short work of by Wichita State. After the season, rumors flew that Stallings would be fired, but he beat Vanderbilt administrators to the mark, fleeing for the Pittsburgh job. Stallings was in Nashville 17 years, had become the school's all-time winningest coach and one of just five coaches in Southeastern Conference history (Adolph Rupp and Billy Donovan were two others) to win 300 or more games at one league school.

Wade's a guy that will continue to get better and better.

– Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings on Baldwin

Baldwin feels responsible for the sudden departure of such a successful, tenured coach. Not surprising for a man with such an analytical mind, he sees enough blame to go around, both personally and as a team.

"Statistically, it was shown that our second-half defense was poor," Baldwin said. "So you could certainly single that out as a reason we underperformed," Baldwin said.

Baldwin takes ownership of another problem, an occasional deficiency that didn't help the Commodores at the time, but will help shape him in the NBA.

"At times I was a vocal leader," Baldwin said. "And at times I was a leader by action. When I was vocal, our team did very well. That's been proven. And there were other times -- when I was focused on leading by action, where we had a lack of vocal leadership -- we didn't play so well. That's something that I have to accept."

NBA teams can be assured that's a lesson Baldwin won't soon forget.

Is he a lottery pick, as some have predicted? Is he the next Russell Westbrook? Those are questions that won't be answered for a while, but Baldwin is confident of what he can bring to the mix of an NBA team that drafts him.

"My competitive edge," Baldwin said. "I think it's a notch above. I'm realistic. I know I still have a long way to go, a lot to learn. But I'm like a sponge. I'll absorb what I'm taught. And then I'll take it to the floor and compete. That's what I do."

Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.

You can email him here, follow him on Twitter and listen to the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Hour.